The Weird: An Interview with Ramsey Campbell

The Iconic Author Talks to About Rupert the Bear, Lovecraft, and More

Ramsey Campbell (1946 — ) is an award-winning and iconic author of uncanny, weird fiction from Liverpool, England. In his stories, largely evoking working- or middle-class settings, Campbell manages to update the weird tale and apply his keen ability to evoke both subtle supernatural horror and portraits of modern life in England. One of the preeminent writers of his generation, Campbell has also edited influential supernatural fiction anthologies. Three of his top ten favorite stories are reprinted in our The Weird compendium (“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood, “Smoke Ghost,” by fritz Leiber and “The Hospice,” by Robert Aickman). Our selection from Campbell’s fiction for The Weird was “The Brood” (1980), as noted by the acquiring anthologist when first published, “has the cumulative effect of a nightmare from which one cannot awake.”

Choosing a story by Campbell was difficult, as there were several dozen that might have suited our purposes. We highly recommend his story collections and novels. Most recently, PS Publishing has released a fiftieth anniversary edition of his The Inhabitant of the Lake collection, from which we posted a story earlier this week (along with more details about the book). — Ann & Jeff VanderMeer Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? And what childhood books do you remember reading that were definitely more of the weird variety?

Ramsey Campbell: It was welcome as long as it was in hardcover – paperbacks were suspect, pulp magazines much more so. I got my start with a children’s book, the 1947 Rupert Bear annual. It includes “Rupert’s Christmas Tree”, in which Rupert acquires a magical tree that decamps after the festivities and returns to its home in the woods. Perhaps this is meant as a charming fantasy for children, but the details – the small high voice from the tree, the creaking that Rupert hears in the night, the trail of earth he follows from the tub in his house, above all the prancing silhouette that inclines towards him, the star it has in place of a head – are surely the stuff of adult supernatural fiction. I read it when I was getting on for two years old and lay awake for nights in utter dread. I think I got my start in the field right there, and many of my preoccupations must derive from my early childhood. Our son’s partner Sharika recently reprinted the story in Rupert: A Collection of Favorite Stories (Egmont, 2007), and so you can see for yourselves how unnerving it is.

After that came George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, where the reticence simply suggested to me that worse had been left undescribed – it was a very small step after that to M. R. James, whose work I found along with many other classics of the field in an anthology (borrowed on my mother’s library ticket) when I was six. Much else came from the library, including all the Derleth and Groff Conklin books then available. Indeed, I’d read many of the classics before I entered my teens. Do you see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and does it matter to you?

Ramsey Campbell: There’s obviously a difference, but there’s a great deal of overlap. Some examples: the early novels of John Franklin Bardin contain nothing overtly fantastic, yet a tale like The Deadly Percheron feels trapped in the world of schizophrenia (as do the other novels published as an omnibus). Bob Bloch’s Psycho can be read as a variation on “The Thing on the Doorstep”, another story of someone possessed by the spirit of a female corpse in the cellar. I’ve never bothered much with the distinction, either as a reader or a writer. I wasn’t taken aback to encounter Melville’s “Bartleby” in a horror anthology when I was eleven, and I’ve generally felt my non-fantastic stories and novels are simply a natural progression from my supernatural stuff. Are there particular weird influences you care to point to in terms of your own work, besides Lovecraft? Anyone you think readers might be surprised by?

Ramsey Campbell: From Lovecraft I learned intensity and the orchestration of prose. My first editor – August Derleth of Arkham House – advised me to reacquaint myself with the ghostly tales of M. R. James in the interests of restraint, and I saw how James conveyed more terror with a single sentence or even sometimes a solitary phrase than most writers achieve in a paragraph; he’s still unequalled at showing just enough to suggest far worse. The influence of both – indeed, of the English and American traditions – is united in the great works of Fritz Leiber, who took the tale of urban supernatural terror forward with a leap of imagination; whereas previously the everyday environment was invaded by the supernatural, now (in “Smoke Ghost” and others) it became its source. Of these three, Fritz was most crucial in showing me where I wanted to take the field – into areas where urban psychology and the spectral meet and merge. I think there are traces of other favourites, too – Graham Greene I loved for brevity of expression, Nabokov for joy in language. Now and then I make another effort to reach the cosmic heights scaled by Blackwood and Machen and T. E. D. Klein, among others. When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?

Campbell: I would say when the author’s imagination has failed to engage with it – fallen short, if you like. What do you think is the appeal of weird fiction generally? The scare? Catharsis? Something else?

Campbell: I can’t improve on Fritz Leiber’s definition – “wonder and terror” – but I do value the shift of perception fiction can achieve, within the narrative and within my mind. Of course not only weird fiction does that, but the best of it does for me. Some of the most evocative scenes in your novels are almost glimpsed from the corner of the eye. Is the “reveal” of the other-worldly element in a supernatural story the toughest part to get right? How do you know how much to reveal and how much to hold back?

Campbell: Instinct, pure instinct, when it works. I do try and hold back from anything that doesn’t convince me on an imaginative level, and very often stuff I thought would do so gets left out when it fails. Equally, if it doesn’t work when I reread the first draft or the rewrite, out it goes. Alas, looking back over my published tales I see how much dross got through… How often does the real world give you something seemingly inexplicable, something weird, that becomes a spark for a story or novel?

Campbell: It doesn’t even have to be weird in itself – the most familiar mundane details and events can suddenly turn and reveal their unexpected side. An overheard phrase, a thought prompted by an ordinary object – they’ll do. My novel Obsession was based on a single exchange of dialogue in a Sylvester Stallone Rocky film. Your story “The Brood” in our The Weird anthology is incredibly creepy and somehow almost claustrophobic. Do you remember how you came to write it?

Campbell: I believe it came from the image of someone walking around a streetlamp at night – I can’t recall if I actually saw someone at the time. Alas, I don’t recall the process of writing it! The collection we’re running a story from, The Inhabitant of the Lake, has some historical significance, in terms of your connection to Arkham House. How do you feel about these stories now? Is it possible to separate them from the memory of, say, corresponding with August Derleth?

Campbell: I think I can be objective about them now – I think they’re not bad as Lovecraft pastiches, no worse than some that appeared in Weird Tales. I’m disconcerted that some readers think they’re better than my later work. Sorry, but those folk are wrong. Everyone has an idea of what they think “Lovecraftian” fiction is. Can you share some aspect of what Lovecraft did well that tends to get overlooked?

Campbell: Well, I don’t know if it’s overlooked, but the sense of cosmic dread lasts for me above all. To an extent his reputation is the victim of his mythos. It was conceived as an antidote to conventional Victorian occultism — as an attempt to reclaim the imaginative appeal of the unknown — and is only one of many ways his tales suggest worse, or greater, than they show. It is also just one of his means of reaching for a sense of wonder, the aim that produces the visionary horror of his finest work (by no means all of it belonging to the mythos). His stories represent a search for the perfect form for the weird tale, a process in which he tried out all the forms and all the styles of prose he could. Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you when someone says it about your own work?

Campbell: Not for me, and nobody’s said it of me that I know of! If you had to pick one weird writer who is overlooked and needs to be resurrected and better appreciated, who would it be and why?

Campbell: Certainly not unknown but still under-appreciated: William Hope Hodgson, in particular for his novels, and above all for The Night Land, too often dismissed because of its style. I think it’s a tremendous vision of great sustained intensity. Finally, what’s the weirdest book or story you’ve ever read?

Campbell: Lord, which R.A. Lafferty shall I choose? I can’t. Any number of his.